** This article was originally published as a Guest Post on the Just Call Me Jess Blog.
Those who live with anxiety disorders know all too well the overwhelming feeling of anxiety. How one reacts to their anxiety disorder can be unique to the person, as can how a panic attack affects them. Some people react with anger, others by removing themselves from the situation, and some people will freeze up completely. Others will cry, laugh, etc. There is no “right” way to have a panic attack, so they don’t always look the same. Myself, I get extremely quiet when the anxiety kicks in. All of my panic is internal and rarely shows on the outside, but there is a long, complicated reason for that. Some people are like me, others have an outward display of anxiety, but either way, it can be hard to get it under control.
Some people can use grounding techniques when the anxiety starts, others need to be led through them until their brain gets focused enough to do the rest. It can be so debilitating that it can keep those affected from enjoying their lives because they can’t handle many situations. They isolate themselves because they think no one will understand, or that no one cares to understand. (To visit the main Anxiety page, go here.)
The steps I’ve described below are intended for those with anxiety to share with the people they want to be able to help them through anxiety attacks, or for those who want to help, to know how to approach it. Having someone willing to help can mean the difference between attending events and staying home, allowing those with anxiety to reclaim some control of their lives. I don’t recommend using these steps unless you have discussed it with the person beforehand.
It’s possible to actually worsen the anxiety by trying to help if the person isn’t familiar with you, or if their anxiety is the type that makes them need to isolate themselves from others. Please be sure the person you want to help can be helped by these methods.
This is not medical advice. They are simply things I have learned that have helped me, and others close to me, very much over my lifetime of living with anxiety. I have had close friends do these things for me, and I have done them for several of them, and my adult son, when their anxiety was too out of control for them to handle without help. The process has worked very well.
1. Be calm. This is of absolute importance.
If you aren’t capable of remaining calm throughout the process, you aren’t the person that should be helping, and that’s okay. Just know when to recognize that you’ll do more harm than good. Not everyone is able to help someone through a panic attack. It can take someone who has lived it and understands to be able to recognize what is happening, and help someone through it. If you can be absolutely calm and guide them through grounding techniques, it can help tremendously.
2 Be assertive, but not harsh or cruel.
They need to see you as someone strong, reliable, and trustworthy in order for it to help them through the process. Sometimes, you may have to speak up firmly to cut through the panic and get their attention, but you have to be careful that you don’t seem angry or threatening, because that can just add to their anxiety. Be careful about using touch to get their attention since it can sometimes cause even worse panic. Best practice is to discuss this aspect with whoever you want to help before the time comes so you’ll know what will work best.
3 A calming touch.
On the flipside, sometimes touch can be the only thing that cut through the panic, but again, you really need to discuss this aspect with the person you’re wanting to help. IF the person says touch is okay, there are a couple of things to try:
- a) Place your hands on their shoulders and lightly press down. This forces their shoulders to relax instead of staying in a tensed up position. It helps send a physical signal to the body to calm down. This is particularly helpful for people who naturally carry all of their stress in their shoulders (I’m one of them,) because they usually can’t make themselves relax all the way. Having someone to physically help them relax their body can make a big difference in how quickly the panic is under control.
- b) Use your own heartbeat to help them slow theirs. If you can keep your heartbeat under control, take their hand and place it somewhere they can feel it. The most effective for me is placing my hand over the heart, but since that could be awkward for some people, you can also use the pulse in your wrist, or neck, for the same purpose. Just have them press their fingers to it and then they need to concentrate on matching their own heartbeat to yours. That’s why this only works if you are able to remain calm while helping someone. If your heart is also racing, that will just contribute to their panic, so be sure you can handle it before trying to calm their heartbeat with your own. You can also do similar with breathing by having them match your breathing while you take slow, calming breathes.
4 Guide them through grounding techniques until they can start focusing.
The point is to get their brain to “reset” by having it focus on something else entirely. This requires having a list of techniques to use before the event happens, so be sure to make a list, or bookmark a couple of websites so you can access them quickly. I created Anxiety Cards (writtenbydida.com/anxietycards) that help me (and others) through anxiety attacks. At times when the panic attack is too overwhelming to allow me to focus on what the cards say, it has been helpful to have someone walk me through the steps on them. I’ve also done the same for my son, and others. There are many grounding techniques available to use, so if something doesn’t work for someone, try another. I have a list (writtenbydida.com/battling-anxiety/) of all the different methods I use right here, on my site, because I cycle through them to keep everything helpful. My anxiety cards are sort of a combination of different methods in hopes they will be useful to just about anyone, but there are even more methods available than the ones I use on them, which leads to the next tip.
If you’re really trying to help someone get through their anxiety attacks, make sure you do your research. Read about triggers, causes, methods of treatment, etc. It will help you understand what is happening, and should even show you the underlying causes for the anxiety, giving you an even better idea of how to help them through it. I’ve created a page on Anxiety on my site, and have a few posts covering many of these things that also include links to professional resources. It’s a good starting point for researching, understanding, and relieving anxiety.
6 Remember, you aren’t trying to “fix” anyone.
There isn’t an easy fix to anxiety, or most other mental health issues. The only way to be supportive is to try to help them work through it when it happens. Please do not go into this thinking you’ll be able to make their anxiety go away completely. It’s just not that simple. Even with all my experience, formal education, and informal education, I still have an anxiety disorder, and it will still rear its ugly head at the most inconvenient of times. All you can do is help them get through it in whatever way is best for them.
Many times, those with anxiety need to vent to get all the thoughts out of their head, but they don’t like to say everything in their head because people rarely understand. Listen to them without judgmental looks, and don’t make any negative comments. It can make you feel horrible to vent to someone just to have them come at you with a bunch of judgement and negativity. There are appropriate times to have conversations about things they may be doing to contribute to their issues, but when their anxiety is already high, it’s not one of those times. Learn to recognize when they need you to listen.
These tips for helping someone with anxiety are not foolproof. There will be some trial and error while you’re figuring out what works for them, but with good communication, these things can definitely be helpful. Have a conversation with someone you care about that is struggling with their anxiety. You being there for them could just be what helps them be able to handle situations they may not have otherwise, and as someone who has lived with anxiety for over 30 years, I can tell you- that can mean everything.